Brie's European Cheese Adventure
Brie, our cheese buyer and one of the managers of the store, recently returned from a FABOULOUS, hugely jealousy-inducing, wonderful cheese trip. She was invited by one of our cheese suppliers, Essex Street Cheese, to meet some of their cheesemakers across Europe. She went to five countries – The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and France – in ten days, that jetsetter! I asked her all about it. This is just a tiny fraction of what Brie told me about because, as she said, “We cannot do justice to all this trip in one interview!” My interjections are in italics.
Which cheese where?
The Netherlands – L’Amuse Signature Gouda & Wilde Weide
Spain – Manchego 1605
Italy – Parmigiano Reggiano G. Cravero
France – Comté Marcel Petite
Juhl - Rachel Juhl does sales and education at Essex Street Cheese Co, the importer of these fantastic cheeses. Juhl was one of the leaders of the trip and Brie was extremely grateful for her amazing trip organization and driving skillz throughout Europe.
Giorgio - Giorgio Cravero selects and ages our Parmigiano Reggiano. He lives next to his cheese cellars in Bra, Italy.
Betty - Betty Koster, co-owner of L’Amuse Gouda, selects and ages gouda in Holland.
Martin - Martin Koster, co-owner of L’Amuse Gouda.
In La Mancha, Spain, at Sierra de la Solana, we hiked up this trail that was [a] big wide switchback trail that was a comfortable walk, but we still were ascending pretty quickly. It was the most distracting view over the plains of La Mancha, which were really flat. I didn’t realize it was going to be so flat and expansive. It felt like we could see for forever! The soil was this brick-colored reddish tone. Vineyards are part of it, but it’s not vineyards like Italy where every patch of everything has a vine on it; there was farmland and agricultural land, and some of that included vines. Some of it was just dirt too, not cultivated land. But that helped with the contrast in the view – you see the red, you see the green, you see the grasses, and the vines, it was gorgeous. And the sunrise in that vineyard was incredible.
Favorite Non-Cheese Activity
Boating around the canals in of Amsterdam with Betty and Martin and their two daughters Thassia and Juliette and a few of their family friends. Betty’s long time friend owned the boat, and he steered it in the most unbelievable way. There were so many times when we were almost going to hit the wall of a bridge, or if we didn’t slow down we would have collided with another boat. But he was so calm, and even when he came within inches, we never hit anything. Martin grilled food for everyone on the stern of the boat. We had cheese, tons of cheese from [Betty and Martin’s] shop, not just her [gouda], but raw milk soft ripened cheeses we don’t get to have a lot in the US. We were passing it around and having tons of rosé and just coasting along. It was heavenly. And then they surprised us with silent disco, which was hysterical!
So funny! Floating through the canals was so tranquil [and] it felt really familial, like I was just with the Kosters on their family weekend activity. And it was gorgeous.
One Favorite Cheesemaking Experience
This was definitely the Parmigiano make. First of all, I’ve never seen a make for a cheese that is that famous and historical and classic and just majestic in every way. Like I’ve never seen Gruyère made, I’ve never seen Stilton made. And Parmigiano is the king of cheese. Point blank. Full stop.
I’m not even sure I was grasping all of the things that make it a distinct make. Some of the stuff I was, like how the curd is cut and the remarkable beauty in the deep copper cauldrons [in which they cook the milk and separate the curds and whey]. It was just wonderful to see it up close, it all felt exciting and special.
Massimo Libra, the cheesemaker, was so natural; he just knew the process in his bones. He looked so at ease, and super calm, but you could also tell in his body language and every motion what a perfectionist he is. He was so in touch with every little bit of the milk and the curd and the timing of everything. You can be so committed to excellence in terms of procedures, which he was, but also you could just tell that he knows this process so deeply that you’re watching someone who could have done this with [his] eyes closed. He was also very quiet and very focused. There was just something about how he makes hard work and heavy lifting literally look like art.
The third thing that made it special was that we were immediately so welcomed into his family. Having lunch with him and his fellow farmers and his neighbors and his family, his three children, his wife … That was the piece of it I didn’t see coming at all! That was the part that made me emotional because I realized we weren’t there just to observe this technical dairy processing. There’s emotional value here. Honestly, I couldn’t even communicate with most of them, but there was something about being at the table with everybody, eating their traditional lunch, and feeling how excited they were to serve us their pork, and cheese, and lardo, and homemade Lambrusco. There was so much pride, but also humility, and just really epic hospitality. So, especially coming right after the make, that was really meaningful.
Oh this is easy – in Bra, at Caffè Converso. It was a rainy morning. We were about to embark on our day-long drive to the Jura. Everyone was so tired and needed that hit of caffeine. We sat outside under tents and let the rain fall around us and had our lattes and cappuccinos and pastries and it was super nice.
At Cascina Corte, which was a really special experience, partly because it was the last thing we did in Italy. The story of Sandro Barosi, the winemaker and owner of the vineyard, is really cool because he used to be the head of international operations for Slow Food, or something like that. He was extremely successful in that role, AND he had another career in fashion in which he was also very successful.
In 2001, he came across this plot of land in Dogliani [with a] rundown structure. He wanted to buy the land, the property, and the house and fix it all up and start growing grapes and making wine and living there. He had Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food International, [over to the property]. Because they’re all friends, you know? So he had Carlo Petirini over and they sat under a fig tree and they looked out at this property, which was a mess. Carlo said something to him like, “You know this is crazy. I know you take crazy risks but this is actually insane. I would never do this.” Sandro enjoyed telling us that story because of course he’s had great success!. We toured his vineyards briefly, played with little puppies on his property at his farm, and then we sat with him and Giorgio. He and Giorgio have been friends for over 40 years!
There was a wonderful moment when I realized we’d sold his wine at the shop and had written about it in a newsletter, and we’d called it “the best Dolcetto in Piedmont.” Sandro just freaked out and started hugging me and kissing my face all over.
At this point the weather was sort of not great, but we sat outside under cover overlooking the vineyard out back of his home. We tasted a bunch of his wine and he was really excited to hear our thoughts, which was so much fun. It was really sweet that he cared so much about our opinions because he’s obviously doing his thing and killing the game. The whole experience was cool and connecting with him was really cool! It’s like anything; it all comes to life when you know the person behind it. So honestly, I could have disliked the wines, which I didn’t, but I could have and I still would have thought it was the best wine experience of the trip.
Ok favorite meal… We were back in Bra at Giorgio’s house, we toured his aging space [filled with wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano], we talked about cheese for a while… We saw the Giornale, the family ledger with all their business transactions dating back to like 1890. It was so cool.
We then moved outside to his terrace and sat around his table and he brought out Bra sausage and [cheese]. It cracks me up how European cheesemakers serve us a cheese just by putting down a wedge like this big (Brie holds her fingers 4 inches apart). Do you ever take like 3 pounds of cheese and just put the whole wedge out and say help yourself?
(Kiri laughs a lot but is thinking, “Dang I should really do that!”)
But that’s how Betty does it, how Giorgio does it. He just takes this huge chunk and is like, “here we go!” (we laugh). Everyone just sort of hacks away and it’s super normal and no one’s worrying about waste and no one’s worrying about manners or like, a plate.
We were joined by Giacamo Sr. [Giorgio’s father], Giacomo Jr. [Giorgio’s son], Barbara, his wife, and Sevrine, who’s his employee, her baby daughter and her husband. So 10 of us, maybe 12, sat around and had Bra sausage and bread and salami and Parmigiano and the butter made from the cream of the milk that is skimmed for Parmigiano . They brought out an anchovy dish, which was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and of course it was super simple. It was anchovies in olive oil with minced garlic, parsley and egg yolk. The correct way [to eat it], apparently, was bread, huge slabs of Parmigiano cream butter, and then spoonfuls of this anchovy dish on top. We were FREAKING OUT.
But again, what made that meal so amazing was sitting with three generations of the Cravero family and other members of their family. The day was beautiful and bright and sunny and warm, and we’re sitting on this terrace with an incredible view of Bra, snacking and chatting. There was no rush, which was another fantastic thing, there was no agenda, none of us even knew what we were doing next, it was magical.
Wow, what a day!
And we didn’t even know that was coming up! So we’re just chillin’ with zero place to be, no concerns. I did not feel like I was a stranger from a faraway land. There was something about how natural and right it felt [and] the casual, unadorned quality of it that made it even more special because I felt like I belonged. It made me never want to leave. (Brie starts crying remembering the experience, missing Italy and the Craveros).
And as Brie said above, this is just the tip of the freakin’ cheese iceburg! Maybe there will have to be a part two…
For the love of cheese and cheese travels,